• Monday, Sep 20, 2021
  • Last Update : 03:09 am

Safe haven is closer than you think

  • Published at 05:28 pm March 29th, 2021
cyclone centre
Minara Begum sits in front of her cyclone resilient house with her son. Photo: Saqib Sarker

Brac’s Climate Change program has an innovative and attainable solution for how to shelter the rural poor from deadly cyclones

Mid-November, 2007. Sometime during the evening Minara Begum from a village in Borguna district, was scurrying towards a cyclone shelter when she fell into a pit. She held her 8-month-old daughter close to her chest. This alone wouldn’t save the infant from heavy rain that was pouring down as cyclone Sidr raged overhead. The Category-5 storm was identified as “extremely severe”. But Minara was lucky. Someone passing by heard her call for help and pulled her out of the pit. She didn’t have to become one of the 3,447 victims that were killed by the storm, according to conservative estimates. 

But now she is a proud owner of a cyclone resilient house, thanks to a new project implemented by Brac’s Climate Change program and funded by The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) of the UK government. 

Under initial phase of ‘Mini Cyclone Shelter’, as the pilot project is called, 30 cyclone resilient houses have recently been built in three coastal districts. Brac selected the candidates and built specially designed concrete houses for free, on lands owned by the selected individuals. In return, the owners will host/provide shelter to their neighbours during a flood, cyclone, and other natural calamities. 

The eligible recipients are families that have very little regular income but who own at least 8 decimal land on which the cyclone resilient house is built. Brac also gives preference to families run by single mothers, among other selection criteria.   

The houses can withstand 250km per hour storm wind. They are built above the height that floodwater reaches, according to data collected over the last 100 years. The 652 square feet, 2-storey houses each have a hygienic toilet, rainwater preservation system and cost Tk6.5 lakh.    

But the resilience of these houses is only a part of why the project can be potentially very impactful. The central utility achieved through this project is embedded in a much simpler yet highly effective idea. These houses are local and easily accessible. 

During a disaster event, mainly the powerful tropical cyclones that hit Bangladesh at least once every year, the greatest number of deaths and injuries happen during the journey to the government designated shelters, which are usually few kilometres away for most people. During a cyclone, reaching the shelters means a long strenuous walk through the storm, which is can be life threatening, particularly for women and children. 

The Mini Cyclone Shelter project solves this problem by bringing the shelter into the neighbourhood, so that vulnerable people never have to make that journey. 

The idea of what a cyclone shelter should be like has evolved over the years to serve the needs of the situation better. But as things stand, the shelters built by the government still have many problems, said Director of Brac’s Climate Change program Md Liakath Ali. “Despite their development there are many issues. Women feel insecure, for instance. The toilet facilities are inadequate,” he said. 

These problems deter people from wanting to go to the shelters. “A typical cyclone shelter needs Tk2-3 crore for building, with cost toward road networks, etc. We thought, what if we built a low-cost house for someone, so that during a cyclone the owner can have their relatives and neighbours over and help them stay safe from the storm?”, said Ali about the strategic advantage such houses. 

In addition to making it easy for people to go to a shelter, this is also cost effective. 220 shelters built by the government between 2016 and 2019 cost Tk2 crore 10 lakh for each facility that can shelter 800 individuals. 

For the same money, 32 Mini Cyclone Shelters can be built, which can house 1,344 people. 

There are over 3,700 cyclone shelters in the coastal areas. An extra 12 thousand school or college buildings are also used as makeshift shelters. Together, these can shelter 51 lakh people, but that still leaves out about one and a half crore people living in these 15 highly vulnerable coastal districts. 

Brac’s cyclone resilience houses will also shelter more livestock than the government shelters. 32 of  these mini shelters together — equal in cost to one government multipurpose shelter — can protect at least 800 livestock, compared to 300 in one government facility. 

Ultimately, the greatest strength of these shelters is that they are accessible. 

“When people hear the announcement for evacuation on loudspeakers, they don’t want to move. The reason for that is that people don’t want to leave their homes, assets, and livestock behind. But people are much more willing to come to these mini shelters. Here, the sheltering house is only a few minutes’ walk away, they know the owner, they can bring their livestock along and feel comfortable,” said Ali. 

Minara Begum agrees. “Now we don’t have to go anywhere when there is a cyclone. We can stay right here and even help out our neighbours, God willing,” she said. 

Ali thinks that the government can adopt this model and scale up, which can have a significant impact on the country’s disaster preparedness. 

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